Musical instruments: Calabash flutes

This is my second post in the series “Musical instruments” (see the first post on the Baskeet bamboo trumpets here). There are many different types of flutes played in Baskeet, either solo, in a group of five, or in a group of six; some of the flutes have only an embouchure hole, others are with additional tone holes. All flutes (except the smallest type) are made from bamboo.

The smallest Baskeet flute type, called biilim or bilbila, is usually produced from a calabash (1):

Calabash flute (biilim) from Baskeet

Calabash flute (biilim) from Baskeet: embouchure hole on the left, one out of two tone holes on the right

The little flutes are made and played by boys and young men, either when herding cattle or in their free-time. The biilim is not considered a “proper” instrument. (2) The melodies that are played on the biilim or the poems that the biilim accompanies are not categorised as “songs” (yetts) by the Baskeet but as “games” (kaassi).

The flutes are made from the necks (or as the Baskeet say, from the “mouths”) of calabashes. Here’s a fruit-bearing calabash plant (note, however, that the “short-necked” calabash species on the photo is probably not suitable for the production of biilim-flutes):

Calabash plant

Calabash plant (kocci)

The upper end of a long-necked calabash is cut off, hollowed out, two holes (an embouchure hole and one tone hole) are drilled into it and the open end is plugged with gum gained from the enset plant. A second tone hole is left in this gum:

Calabash flutes

Baskeet calabash flutes (biilim)

Alternatively (but much less commonly), the biilim can be produced from a piece of bamboo. Here you see the instrument of the Baskeet musician Wondu Soddo, a well-known Baskeet lyre and flute player:

Shephered flute (biilim) made from bamboo

Biilim-flute made from bamboo

Have a look at the following short sound files to get an impression of how the flute sounds. This is an excerpt of a song played on a bamboo-biilimand this is an excerpt of song played on a calabash-biilim (I owe the recordings to Ayyele Kamaado and Wondu Soddo, respectively). The players blows across and into the embouchure hole and use the index finger of the right hand and the thumb of the left hand to open and close the tone holes.

Hand posture when playing the biilim

Hand posture when playing the biilim (demonstrated by Wondu Soddo)

The instrumental sections of the biilim songs (from which the excerpts were taken) alternate with sections in which the musicians recite poems about their cattle. These poems will be analysed in my scientific publications.

I’d be happy to hear whether calabash flutes are also played elsewhere in Ethiopia.

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(1) The calabash is a multi-purpose plant whose fruits are hollowed out and dried and used for various types of vessels – more about these vessels in later posts.
(2) I am not aware of a translational equivalent of the term ‘musical instrument’ in Baskeet.
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3 Responses to Musical instruments: Calabash flutes

  1. Pingback: DVD Baskeet songs: Excerpts | Basket to Ethiopia

  2. Pingback: Baskeet calabashes | Basket to Ethiopia

  3. Pingback: Musical instruments in Baskeet: Drums | Basket to Ethiopia

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